There is so much that’s good, even excellent, about this novel that I feel a little churlish for stating that the primary impression it left me with was one of disappointment, but that is the case, and the disappointment doesn’t arise solely as a consequence of the many accolades and awards heaped on it (although that contributed, as unfair as it may be). But Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell indicates ambitions I think it fails to live up to. It’s also quite a big book — the paperback edition is a thousand pages, give or take, and intrinsically demands a little more investment from its reader than the average novel, which added to my dissatisfaction.
Positives first: This is a fantasy novel that owes virtually no debt to Tolkien (or for that matter, to Harry Potter). Clarke portrays faeries as quite inhuman entities. As a reader of a smattering of the darker and less-Disneyfied legends and folk-tales of such things, her rendition of them struck a very pleasing note with me. Also happily, her early 19th-century men and women will also be somewhat alien to modern readers; Clarke makes no effort to sugarcoat the English class system. Clarke’s prose demonstrates careful attention to detail throughout, and displays flashes of wit and occasional melancholy beauty.
Throughout Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Clarke has adopted some conventions of 19th-century prose, chief of them outmoded spellings (“sopha” for “sofa,” “shew” for “show”), and a reserved narrative presence with a fondness for the passive voice. This blends jarringly with much more modern literary devices, like fragmentary sentences and frequent, dramatic shifts of setting (including some of the “here’s what the villains are up to” variety, which also undermine the narrative tension).
There are also several unmistakable allusions to Jane Austen (although it’s her contemporary Anne Radcliffe who draws namechecks). It’s an unfelicitous comparison to invoke. Clarke fails to create a rich inner life for characters; most are at best two-dimensional. Clarke’s antiquated stylistic choices result in prose that’s often flat and sometimes repetitive. Clarke may not be interested in fully realizing her people or in constructing graceful and elaborate sentences — but if not, Austen is a bad name to conjure. At worst it makes Clarke’s authorial voice seem a little less like style and a little more like gimmickry.
I also have serious quibbles with the structure of the book. Essentially, it braids several stories of ensorcellment which follow the classic template. Although the novel stands on its own, not all of its conflicts are resolved, and the finale distinctly implies a continuation of the story. The conflicts that are resolved find their resolution through a sort of deus ex machina. It’s a well-supported and amply telegraphed deus ex machina, but a deus ex machina nonetheless. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell also teases quite a bit (and flouts a Chekovian rule of drama): if a fantasy novel repeatedly mentions “a strange country on the far side of Hell,” I damned well want it to take me there! But that will have to wait, I suspect, for a later volume.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell failed to satisfy me on a thematic level as well. Its alternate history of the Napoleonic wars doesn’t appear to comment on our own. The magic performed by the titular characters is sometimes impacted by their internal states, but Clarke seems uninterested in exploring the metaphorical opportunities this could provide. I have nothing against purely escapist fiction, but when a novel arrives with such high praise, and demanding so much of the readers time, I expect to get a little more back in return. I enjoyed Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but it didn’t deliver as much as it seemed to promise.
Needs More Demons? Kinda sorta, I’m afraid